This weekend the move New Moon raked in a whopping $140 million at the box office. If it was not already known that the series of books known as The Twilight Saga was a phenomenon, this would certainly prove that it is. Indeed, when the final book in the series, Breaking Dawn, was published in August, 2008, it sold 1.3 million copies in the first twenty four hours alone. Today it is hard to avoid the series' myriad fans, who seem to be everywhere.
Of course, any time a TV series, movie, book, or rock band becomes a phenomenon, there are always detractors. The Beatles had more than their share of detractors when Please Please Me was released in 1963. Star Wars had its share of detractors in the summer of 1977. While it is typical for phenomena in any medium to have detractors, it seems as if The Twilight Saga has more than its fair share of them. Indeed, I would say what separates The Twilight Saga from The Beatles or Star Wars is that it actually deserves to have detractors. As if you had not guessed by now, I am among those detractors (here I must give credit where credit is due--beyond my dislike of the Twilight series, this post was inspired by Serena Whitney's great write up on Twilight at KillerFilm).
For me the simple fact is that, unlike The Beatles, Star Wars, the Sixties Batman show, or Harry Potter, The Twilight Saga is simply not very good. This is not great literature that we are talking about. It is not even mediocre literature. As a whole The Twilight Saga is not only very poorly written, but it is also very, very derivative. Stephenie Myer created nothing original with The Twilight Saga. Instead, she borrowed bits and pieces from works in various media spanning over 100 years.
Indeed, the idea of the vampire romance is probably the least original aspect of the series. Romance and sexuality has been present in vampire fiction ever since Dracula was published in 1897. Not only is there romantic overtones in the relationship between Dracula and Mina Harker, it is overtly sexual. Both the romantic and sexual aspects of the relationship between Dracula and Mina would become emphasised in the movies, particularly in the 1958 Hammer adaptation of Dracula and its sequels, as well as the 1979 and 1992 adaptations. In fiction the romantic and sexual aspects of Dracula and Mina's relationship would become the heart of Fred Saberhagen's classic The Dracula Tape and its sequels. Other authors would follow suit. Indeed, Anne Rice made millions in exploiting the sexuality Bram Stoker had endowed the vampire.
Of course, there are those who will argue that Stephenie Meyer invented the young adult vampire romance. This is certainly not the case. Indeed, she was actually a latecomer to the field of young adult vampire romances. What may have been the first young adult vampire romance was The Vampire Diaries by L. J. Smith, the first trilogy of which was published way back in 1991. The plot of the first book in that trilogy, The Awakening, concerned beautiful high school student Elena who falls in love with a centuries old vampire. Just like Twilight, The Awakening and the other books are told from the heroine's point of view. Another vampire romance series which may well have served as fodder is The Southern Vampire Mysteries (the basis for the TV show True Blood). It also featured a young heroine who fell in love with a vampire. The first book in the series was published in 2001. The series is also narrated in first person by the heroine, Sookie Stackhouse, just as Bella narrates Twilight What sets The Southern Vampire Mysteries apart from either The Vampire Diaries or The Twilight Saga is that it is set in a greater world where almost everything supernatural is real (fairy blood runs in Sookie's family).
Indeed, not only did Stephenie Meyer not invent the young adult vampire romance, but her main character, Isabella "Bella" Swan is nearly a clone of both Elena Gilbert of The Vampire Diaries and Sookie Stackhouse of The Southern Vampire Mysteries. Elena Gilbert is beautiful, popular, and intelligent who falls in love with an allegedly young man who is secretly a vampire. Sookie Stackhouse is blue eyed, buxom blonde who is also a telepath. She also falls in love with a man who is secretly a vampire. This brings us to Bella Swan, who is more similar to Elena Gilbert than Sookie Stackhouse. Now to her credit, Stefenie Meyer does try to convince readers that Bella is a shy, lonely, awkward teen, an utterly average girl. In the end, however, Meyer does not follow through with this, so that Bella is no more lonely or awkward than either Elena or Sookie. On her first day at her new high school in Forks, Washington, Bella makes friends, and quite easily. Not only does she make friends, but she also has quite a few teenage boys competing for her attention. Despite Stefenie Meyr's claim (through Bella's first person narration) that Bella is shy, awkward, and lonely, she is quite the opposite--Bella is friendly, popular, and apparently beautiful enough to attract the attention of several boys. She is Elena Gilbert of The Vampire Diaries if Elena claimed to be shy and lonely!
Now there are some major differences between Sookie Stackhouse and Bella Swan. Sookie is an adult barmaid (she's in her twenties) rather than a high school student and Sookie possesses fairy blood, but Bella still resembles Sookie in one respect. Sookie is a telepath who can read the minds of mortals, but not vampires and other supernatural entities. Bella is a mortal whose mind the vampire Edward Cullen cannot read. Given how much Twilight owes to previous vampire literature, it is difficult not to wonder if Edward's inability to read Bella's thoughts does not owe something to Sookie's inability to read vampire's thoughts.
Of course, while many might admit that Bella is derivative, I am willing to bet they will assert that Edward Cullen is original. In my humble opinion, however, Edward is only original in as far as he is a vampire who "sparkles." As pointed out above, sexuality has been present in vampire fiction since Dracula, so that there have been no shortage of sexy vampires. In film sex was brought to the fore with Christopher Lee's portrayal of Dracula in the 1958 film of the same name. It was made even more blatant in Frank Langella's portrayal of Dracula in the 1979 film of the same name. Anne Rice made millions from the vampire Lestat, an overtly sexual creature. Edward Cullen is simply the nth reverberation of the sexy vampire. That having been said, Edward Cullen is not only the spiritual descendent of Dracula and Lestat, he is also patterned after heroes from classic literature. Like Fitzwilliam Darcy from Pride and Prejudice, he is aloof and distant. Like Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights he is passionate and temperamental. Like Edward Rochester in Jane Eyre, he sees himself as a monster and has Byronic overtones. Of course, the problem with Edward Cullen as a product of both the sexual, romantic vampire and the heroes of Jane Austen and the Bronte sisters' novels is that he is an overly simplistic creation. Indeed, it must be pointed out that for all that his love for Bella is romanticised, in Twilight he more or less stalks her. It is hard seeing Mr. Darcy or even Heathcliff doing that!
Now I know that there are those that are going to insist Stepenie Meyer's interpretation of vampires is original. After all, they can go out in sunlight, do not have fangs (they drink blood by biting with their particularly powerful teeth), and are not harmed by holy items, holy water, or garlic. They are also spectacularly beautiful, a means through which they lure their victims. Even when it comes to her vampires, Meyer has not been particularly original. First, I must point out that the idea of vampires being harmed by sunlight is a rather recent invention. According to the old folklore, vampires could go out in the daylight--they simply preferred to operate at night. Indeed, in the novel Dracula, Dracula does go about in the day, although it is not particularly comfortable for him. It was not until the film Nosferatu was released in 1922 that the idea that sunlight harmed vampires was introduced. Second, as to Meyer's vampires not having fangs, this has been done before. In Suzee McKee Charnas' The Vampire Tapestry, the vampires do not have fangs but drink blood through a needle contained in their tongues--an idea found in Polish folklore. In the series The Saga of Darren Shan (AKA Cirque du Freak) by Darren Shan, first published in 2000, the vampires do not have fangs either. To drink blood they but cut the a vein in the arm of a victim with one of their sharp nails. Third, as to Meyer's vampires not being affected by garlic, silver, or holy objects, this has been true of a good number of vampires in various media over the years. In the classic film Fright Night, it is established that it is not so much the holy object itself that harms vampires, but the belief of the one wielding the object. The vampires in The Saga of Darren Shan are not harmed by silver, garlic, or holy objects at all. Fourth, as to the beauty of Meyer's vampires, this has been true of many vampires in many media throughout the years. Indeed, in the classic novella by Sheridan Le Fanu, Carmilla, the title character is portrayed as beautiful. The vampire Lestat, the main character of Anne Rice's Vampire Chronicles, is portrayed as incredibly handsome. Indeed, in the history of vampire fiction, ugly vampires tend to be a rarity! Ultimately, about the only original thing about Meyer's vampires is that they sparkle in the sun, a rather dubious contribution to vampire lore...
Meyer is also derivative when it comes to the society of her vampires. Many of her vampires belong to covens, such as the Cullens to which Edward belongs or the powerful Volturi in Italy. Again, this is not an original idea. In The Vampire Chronicles, Anne Rice also portrayed vampires belonging to covens, an example being the Théâtre des Vampires (a theatrical troupe which also happens to be a coven of vampires). With the role playing game Vampire: the Masquerade, White Wolf Game Studio went one step further, with vampires belonging to entire clans. It must be pointed out that Meyer is not particularly original with regards to werewolf or shapeshifter society either. She portrays werewolves as belonging to tribes or packs. This is an idea that can at least goes back to The Wolfen by Whitney Streiber. In White Wolf Game Studio's Werewolf: the Apocalypse, werewolves belong to tribes. With regard to both vampire and werewolf society, Meyer was not particularly original.
Of course, in Stephenie Meyer's defence it must be pointed out that The Twilight Saga was inspired by a dream she had in which an average girl was talking to an incredibly beautiful vampire in a forest. She has also stated that she did not research vampire lore before writing the books. It is fully possible, perhaps even probable, that Meyer did not intentionally borrow so much from so many different sources for The Twilight Saga. After all, so many works on vampires in various media have so permeated our society that one can be influenced by them without ever having read or seen them. Quite simply, because one has not read Dracula does not mean that one might unconsciously borrow from it. Besides, it must also be pointed out that a book or movie can be derivative and still be good. The movie Fright Night is regarded by a classic by many, yet it brings little that is original to vampire lore. The problem is that not only is The Twilight Saga not very original, it is also not very good.
The overall poor quality of The Twilight Saga can be seen its portrayal of the relationship between Bella and Edward, which is extremely dysfunctional. I will not go into just how dysfunctional their relationship is, as Serena Whitney already did that in her piece on KillerFilm; however, I will point out one thing that Serena left out. At the start of Twilight Bella Swan is 17 years old, while Edward Cullen is 104 years old (having been born in 1901). While Edward may appear to be a teenager or young adult, he is then a very old man. Indeed, the age difference between Edward and Bella (87 years) is over twice the age difference between Humbert Humbert and Lolita in Vladimir Nabokov's classic novel! Far from being a romantic figure, Edward Cullen is then the clinical definition of an ephebophile, someone with an overwhelming sexual preference for individuals in mid to late adolescence. Ultimately, Edward Cullen differs very little from Humbert Humbert in Lolita...or Gary Glitter for that matter, yet he is regarded as a heartthrob by millions while Humbert and Glitter are regarded, quite rightfully, as sick.
While Stephenie Meyer romanticises what is essentially a very dysfunctional relationship (and it goes farther than the difference in ages between the two lead characters--just read Serena's article), she does not handle her other characters very well either. In fact, Meyer's characters are not so much characters as they are the same old literary stereotypes. As pointed out above, Edward Cullen is largely based on the romantic, Byronic figures of earlier literature, although quite obviously he has more in common with Humbert Humbert than Mr. Darcy. Bella is little more than what is known science fiction fandom and literary criticism as a Mary Sue, a character who is overly idealised and primarily operates as wish fulfilment for both the writer and her readers. Meyer's other characters are not well developed either, resembling literary clichés more than three dimensional human beings. Indeed, many of Meyer's characters (the two leads included) are shallow, immature, and ultimately uninteresting.
Even given its characters, The Twilight Saga would probably be more readable if it was not for Meyer being very poor when it comes to developing plots as well. For the first 300 pages or so of Twilight there is no indication of a plot other than the relationship between Bella and Edward. Worse yet, probably half of those 300 pages are dedicated to describing Edward's beauty to the point that Meyer must have exhausted Roget's Thesaurus in writing the book. The only real action in the entire book happens at the very end of the book and, even then happens very swiftly. Worse yet, there are times Meyer describes plot points and action so poorly that it is difficult to tell what happened. This is complicated by the prose itself, which is often both florid and over the top. Indeed, the characters' dialogue itself is overwrought. Bella talks like no 21st century teenage girl most of us would know. The Cullens are not simply beautiful--they are "devastatingly, inhumanly beautiful." Bella does not simply notice Edward sitting very close to her, she is "electrically aware" of it. Between Meyer's prose and Bella's dialogue, Twilight is more overwrought that any romance Harlequin may have published.
While I think it is clear that The Twilight Saga is not a series of good books, I must interject one thing. I am not so sure that anyone should necessarily bash Twilight fans. First, I must point out that The Twilight Saga has gotten many young women to read who might not be reading otherwise. If these young women move onto other books (which, with any luck, will be far superior in quality), then The Twilight Saga will have actually done a very good service. Second, I must point out that all of us have probably loved something that was, well, junk at one time or another in our lives. When I was a youngster I watched the TV show Battlestar Galactica loyally, every single week. Many years later I caught the series on the Sci-Fi Channel and tried watching it. I could not make it through even one episode. I tried watching another episode with the same results. I came to a realisation that this show I loved as a kid was very, very bad. I would say that we should then condemn no one for loving The Twilight Saga, although I think I can speak for many of us that I wish they would stop talking about how "great" it is.
Regardless, it seems clear to me that, despite all the furore over Twilight, it will not come to be regarded as a classic. The classics of literature, even the classics of young adult literature, have several things in common. They are well written. They have fully developed characters. They are quite readable. This is true of A Wrinkle in Time. It is true of The Chronicles of Narnia. It is true of the Harry Potter series. Sadly, it is not true of The Twilight Saga. I cannot help but think that in the end The Twilight Saga is not so much a literary phenomenon than it is a simple fad, like pet rocks or mood rings. If that is the case, then The Twilight Saga will not join such works as Lord of the Rings, The Chronicles of Prydain, or Little Women as a literary classic. Instead, it will be remembered in much the same way as pet rocks and mood rings are today--as a craze that swept the nation for a time before fading away.